At its best, Attack on Memory is emo filtered through the lens of somebody smart enough to acknowledge the occasional inanity of its sentiments, cynical enough to consider said inanities silly (or perhaps, “useless”), and deeply felt enough to make them convincing. For the most part, the album is an enormous leap forward for a band that, just a year ago, was making music best described as “Wavves if Nathan Williams was actually good at writing songs”; here, Cloud Nothings move past the slacker touches that marked their first releases, their gestures getting bigger and broader as they make attempts at emotional universality. Now, in order to do this, they resort to lyrical content that blatantly shirks maturity, which is a bit dubious considering that Attack on Memory reads like a conscious grab for legitimacy. But the most conspicuous example of this, “Wasted Days” — with its thrashing first act and extended slow-burning coda — is a happily over-the-top ode to unrealized ambitions, Dylan Baldi’s repeated cry of “I thought I would be more than this” capturing the woes of countless youths working nothing jobs while retaining the tiniest bit of knowingness. Like the unsung indie rock record of 2011, Los Campesinos!’s Hello Sadness, Attack on Memory at times possesses nigh-cinematic intentions.
Which is what keeps this album from sounding like kids sprawled about, passing a blunt around, being sad, drawling, “Shit, everything sucks, man.” Steve Albini helms the sonics of this imaginary film, his crystal-clear recording adding an extra edge to the righteous, raucous pop of “Fall In” and “Stay Useless”; that latter song is a particularly stirring bit of whininess. “I’m stuck in here and I’m tired of everywhere/ I’m never going to learn to be alone,” goes one couplet, rendered weirdly poignant by Baldi’s simultaneously impassioned and sneering delivery. Throughout the album, there’s a constant tension between the band’s desire to appear coolly nonchalant and their inability to actually do so. Much of Attack on Memory uses this seeming paradox to its advantage, but occasionally the band misses the mark. “No Future/No Past” and “No Sentiment” work as anthems of angst but are lyrically confused, the former’s aggression at odds with its insistence on apathy while the latter has the worst line of the whole album: “No nostalgia, no sentiment, we’re over it now.”
This seeming manifesto seems hollow mainly because it’s disproved on nearly every other song on the tracklist, often by Baldi himself. The band gets significant mileage out of its front man’s croak of a voice, which is rather unpleasant upon initial contact but becomes more affectingly torn at the edges with successive listens. “Our Plans” may be an attempt at nihilism, but its recurring words — “No one knows our plans for us, we won’t last long” — are, filtered through Baldi’s messy stylings, easily interpreted as desperate calls. Similarly, the superficial sadism of closer “Cut You” is less the passive-aggressive musings of somebody hellbent on destruction than the painful ones of somebody thoroughly embroiled in their own self-hatred: not exactly pleasant or even particularly relatable stuff, but more persuasive than it appears on paper. Let’s hope that on their next outings Cloud Nothings realize that Attack on Memory succeeds not because of the perceived fashionability of its indifference, but because despite their best efforts, they are a band that can’t help feeling.